On November 23, 57 people travelling to nominate a gubernatorial candidate, Ismael Mangudadatu, for the 2011 elections in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao were slaughtered in an armed attack by about 100 members of another faction, the rival Ampatuan clan, and the local police. The victims were herded on to a remote hillside, where some were shot, some beheaded, and some buried alive by an earthmover. Many women were raped before being murdered. Among the dead were Mr. Mangudadatu’s wife and two of his sisters. The dead are also thought to include 18 journalists, and the episode may be the largest single killing of journalists yet known. It appears that Mr. Mangudadatu had received death threats but thought fellow-Muslims, the majority in Maguindanao, would not harm his relatives if they filed the papers for him. The region, one of the poorest in the Philippines, has seen about 120,000 people killed in fighting between Islamist insurgents and state forces since the 1970s.

Even in a country where remote provinces are run by Afghan-style warlords and over a million unlicensed firearms circulate freely, the event has caused enough shock and outrage for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to declare a state of emergency in Maguindanao and another southern province. Troops have spread out across both regions; five police officers, including the Maguindanao police chief, have been relieved of their duties and will be questioned in the national capital, Manila. The Philippines independent commission on human rights, however, says the effect of the murders on provincial prosecutors is “chilling.” The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines says that past investigations of political killings have produced few results; the Ampatuans are among Ms Arroyo’s political allies. The current scandal has, nevertheless, been partly responsible for the Ampatuans handing over the apparent prime suspect, Andal Ampatuan Jr., to a regional presidential adviser -- but only after the risk of fighting between their supporters and government forces became clear. Mr. Ampatuan is to be charged with murder. International human rights groups are watching the developments closely. The European Union and the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have come out strongly against the barbaric crime. Yet the causes are primarily political. Substantial amounts of central government money are at the disposal of regional administrations, and for local politicians and officials the spoils are considerable. The combination of ethno-religious tensions, money, and a catastrophically weak state is deadly -- and carries lessons for all developing countries.

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